A new study has highlighted the importance of Silver Brunia (Brunia laevis) as an economic driver for fynbos harvesters. And the potential threats this could hold for the species – and for fynbos pickers.

The study, undertaken by Matthew Fainman and Prof Beatrice Conradie at the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town asked the question: “Wild-harvesting fynbos flowers: Still a viable business?”

According to Matthew, at a Sustainable Harvesting Programme (SHP) stakeholder engagement session held on Wednesday, 22 January 2020, “Brunia made up 6% of the flowers harvested, but 10 to 30% of the team’s revenue. So we asked the question: Can a harvesting team still be profitable without Brunia?”

The data for the research was based on Flower Valley’s harvesting team between 2008 and 2015. Keep in mind that these results are from a single case study, and represents a typical model for small scale harvesters, but other business models do exist within the wild flower industry.

Fynbos prices stagnated and even declined

The research found that prices for Brunia rose from R1 to R1.80 per stem over that time. But real prices (prices adjusted for inflation) for other species either stagnated or declined over this time. “For the Flower Valley team, it became clear that Brunia laevis is how the team made a profit,” he said.

The fynbos stems are picked by harvesters, arranged into bouquets at pack sheds, and are then sold by retailers in South Africa and in the United Kingdom.

The research concludes that this trend “could lead to overharvesting of valuable species as independent harvesting teams scramble to maintain their revenues”. Matthew added that, “The low prices paid to harvesters in turn result in low prices paid to landowners. This weakens the economic incentive for landowners to conserve fynbos.”

The threats of broadcast sowing

This could lead to more broadcast sowing – a practice whereby a landowner spreads fynbos seeds in natural landscapes. Often these species, however, don’t naturally occur on these landscapes, and they in turn could provide environmental threats to locally endemic species.

According to Flower Valley’s Programme Manager for Natural Resource Management, Kirsten Watson at the SHP meeting, there’s a need to investigate the environmental sustainability of Brunia laevis as a priority. There’s also a need to explore economic diversification options for small-scale harvesters, such as alien clearing, fire wood or other fynbos products.

Honeybush: Barriers to small-scale production

In another research project discussed at the SHP meeting, Stellenbosch University’s Rhoda Malgas looked at why a specific community with a long history of honeybush harvesting is not pursuing honeybush production today.

Despite the opportunities in honeybush production (an industry identified in the development of the Green Economy), the old mission station of Genadendal in the Overberg has highlighted numerous limitations to pursuing this industry. These include a perceived lack of experience, knowledge and interest, difficulty in securing labour, theft, no irrigation and limited access to land.

Rhoda says, “It became clear that many issues lie in the governance side – and not so much on the biophysical side.”

Ways to overcome these barriers

Rhoda suggests in order to overcome many of these perceived limitations, more extension officers are required with agroecological training. “We also need transgenerational knowledge exchange between youth and elders. We need specialised short courses for land-users. And we need to document and maintain local ecological knowledge as a means to conserve wild and agricultural resources.”

Kirsten said the South African Honeybush Tea Association and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning are working to create a Community of Practice in the industry – aimed to unify and empower a fragmented sector. “There’s a need to investigate this idea further for a cut flower or Fynbos community of practice in our area to help address these challenges.”